ROAD FILMS


Part 1



Road Films
Part 1 | Examples


Road Films: Road films have been a staple of American films from the very start, and have ranged in genres from westerns, comedies, gangster/crime films, dramas, and action-adventure films. One thing they all have in common: an episodic journey or quest on the open road (or undiscovered trail), to search for escape (for example, while on the lam during a crime spree) or to engage in a quest for some kind of goal -- either a distinct destination, or the attainment of love, freedom, mobility, redemption, the finding or rediscovering of onself, or coming-of-age (psychologically or spiritually). The road often functioned as a testing ground or proving ground for the main character(s).

The Great Texas Dynamite Chase - 1976Most road pictures feature movement from East to West -- rather than the reverse, and often cross or mention the famed highway Route 66 (made popular by the early 60s TV series of the same name starring Martin Milner and George Maharis). See also this site's description of Greatest Classic Chase Scenes including many films featuring road-related auto races.

Males dominate as the heroic (or anti-heroic) protagonists, with some exceptions (i.e., The Great Texas Dynamite Chase (1976) with Claudia Jennings and Jocelyn Jones as sexy bankrobbers, Herbert Ross' feminist 'road movie' Boys on the Side (1995), Ridley Scott's Thelma and Louise (1991), and Joseph Sargent's Coast to Coast (1980) with Dyan Cannon), although female characters often accompany the male during his trip.

Road pictures had their heyday in the 1970s, when the traditional western declined in popularity. Many sub-categories of road films have existed: racing or chase films, biker flicks, trucker films, buddy films, road warrior films, and lovers/outlaws on the run films.

Lovers-On-The Run Road Films:

Fugitive couples (often lovers and/or killers) fleeing from the law have been found in numerous road films, including:

  • Fritz Lang's film noir and second American film, You Only Live Once (1937) with Henry Fonda (as an ex-con truck driver) and Sylvia Sidney both on the lam as a doomed husband and wife
  • the FBI crime drama Persons in Hiding (1939), based on FBI head J. Edgar Hoover's nonfiction best-selling novel with Broadway star Patricia Morison in her film debut (as pretty seductress Dorothy Bronson) and J. Carrol Naish (as small-time hood Freddie "Gunner" Martin) on the run as criminals following gas station holdups, bank robberies, and a kidnapping
  • Gun Crazy - 1949writer/director Nicholas Ray's first feature film, the poignant noir They Live by Night (1949), based on the novel Thieves Like Us by Edward Anderson, with Farley Granger as fugitive Bowie and Cathy O'Donnell as his wife Keechie - both doomed and pursued lovers
  • the ultimate B-picture, Joseph H. Lewis' Gun Crazy (1949) with John Dall (as Bart Tare) and Peggy Cummins (as Annie Laurie Starr), both firearms-obsessed sharpshooters on a fateful crime spree
  • the exploitative, low-budget thriller The Sadist (1963) (aka Profile of Terror), in which demented, homicidal sadist Charlie Tibbs (Arch Hall, Jr.) held innocent victims captive with his crazy girlfriend Doris Page (Helen Hovey)
  • Arthur Penn's Depression-era road-gangster film Bonnie and Clyde (1967) began in West Dallas, Texas, where Bonnie Parker (Faye Dunaway) fatefully met Clyde Barrow (producer/star Warren Beatty) and the couple began a bank-robbing spree that ended in their bloody ambush deaths in Gibsland, Louisiana
  • Sam Peckinpah's violent The Getaway (1972), based on Jim Thompson's 1959 pulp novel, starring Steve McQueen (as safecracker Doc McCoy) heading up a group of professional bank thieves, and Ali MacGraw (as Carol McCoy) - his wife and getaway driver during a botched holdup involving a double-cross and murder
  • Terrence Malick's Badlands (1973), based upon the late 1950s killing spree by Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, with Martin Sheen (as James Dean look-alike garbage collector Kit) and Sissy Spacek (as magazine-addicted girlfriend Holly) fleeing from South Dakota toward the Badlands of Montana
  • in Big Bad Mama (1974), cops were in hot pursuit of Angie Dickinson across the US for bankrobbing and bootlegging
  • Steven Spielberg's first theatrical release, The Sugarland Express (1974) with a fugitive couple (Goldie Hawn as outlaw wife Lou Jean Poplin and William Atherton as Clovis) fleeing to Sugarland, Texas along with abducted Texas trooper Officer Slide (Michael Sacks)
  • Wild at Heart - 1990Robert Altman's Thieves Like Us (1974) - a remake of Ray's 1949 film and an update of Edward Anderson's novel, with Keith Carradine (as Bowie) and Shelley Duvall (as Keechie) as an outlaw couple brought together during a series of bank robberies
  • David Lynch's surreal Wild at Heart (1990), with troubled Nicolas Cage (as Sailor Ripley) and Laura Dern (as Lula Pace Fortune) traveling from New Orleans to California while being pursued
  • Ridley Scott's feminist-leaning Thelma and Louise (1991), with the title characters Geena Davis (as unhappy housewife Thelma) and Susan Sarandon (as wise-cracking waitress Louise) in deep trouble after a near-rape and deadly incident in an Arkansas parking lot, as they flee to Mexico, with a quick stopover at the Vagabond Motel (and an encounter with J.D. (Brad Pitt)), before sailing into the Grand Canyon
  • Tamra Davis' Guncrazy (1992) starred Drew Barrymore and James LeGros as criminal couple Anita and Howard on the run from the law
  • Dominic Sena's Kalifornia (1993), about psychotic ex-convict Early Grayce (Brad Pitt) and his girlfriend Adele (Juliette Lewis) who shared a cross-country ride with a couple - journalist Brian Kessler and exhibitionist-photographer girlfriend Carrie Laughlin (David Duchovny and Michelle Forbes) writing a book about serial killers
  • Tony Scott's True Romance (1993), with a script by Quentin Tarantino, about Clarence Worley (Christian Slater) and Alabama (Patricia Arquette) road-tripping from Detroit to Los Angeles with a suitcase containing $5 million worth of cocaine
  • Adam Rifkin's high-speed action road film The Chase (1994), with Charlie Sheen as escaped prisoner Jack Hammond and Kristy Swanson as kidnapped love interest Natalie Voss
  • Roger Donaldson's steamy scene-by-scene remake of the 1972 original, The Getaway (1994), with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger on the run through various Southwestern states
  • writer/director C.M. Talkington's outlaw romance Love and a .45 (1994) with Renee Zellweger (as new bride Starlene Cheatham) and Gil Bellows (as petty thief Watty Watts) on the run toward Mexico in flight from Texas police officers
  • Oliver Stone's violent, over-the-top satire Natural Born Killers (1994) with Woody Harrelson and Juliette Lewis as psychopathic serial killers/lovers Mickey and Mallory whose murderous exploits were glorified by the tabloidish mass media through newsman Wayne Gale (Robert Downey, Jr.)

Earlier Classic Road Films:

Frank Capra's romantic comedy It Happened One Night (1934) was an archetypal 'road film', about a fleeing heiress (Claudette Colbert) accompanied by an unemployed newspaper reporter (Clark Gable) on the road - traveling by bus and by hitch-hiking. Victor Fleming's The Wizard of Oz (1939) was a quintessential 'road' film as Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) took an odyssey from her drab, black and white Kansas 'home' to the wonderful land of Oz to learn more about herself, while pursued by the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton). Two John Ford films were classic road films: Stagecoach (1939), an exciting western tale of the perilous adventures of a group aboard a stagecoach across Indian country between two frontier settlements (between Tonto, Arizona toward the Dry Fork and Apache Wells way stations, and finally to their destination - Lordsburg, New Mexico) during a sudden Apache uprising. And Ford's The Grapes of Wrath (1940), an adaptation of John Steinbeck's novel, chronicled a journey of destitute Dust Bowl Okies, the Joad family, from their dispossessed Midwest farmlands to the promised land of California via Rte. 66.

They Drive By Night - 1940Raoul Walsh's They Drive By Night (1940), told about a freelance truck-driving business by wildcat drivers, starring Humphrey Bogart and Ann Sheridan. Preston Sturges' screwball comedy Sullivan's Travels (1941) followed the road 'mission' of 'Sully' (Joel McCrea), a big-shot Hollywood director of lightweight comedies, along with an aspiring blonde actress simply called The Girl (Veronica Lake), to experience suffering in the world before producing his next socially-conscious film of hard times. Edgar Ulmer's film noir Detour (1946) was about a night-club pianist Al Roberts (Tom Neal) hitching his way from New York to LA who encountered another hitchhiker named Vera (Ann Savage) - more than he bargained for.

Other Varieties of Road Movies:

Thunder Road - 1958Laslo Benedek's classic biker film The Wild One (1954) starred leather-jacketed motorcyclist Marlon Brando as Johnny - a symbol of rebellious youth of the 50s terrorizing a small California town. John Ford's western masterpiece The Searchers (1958) told of Ethan Edwards' (John Wayne) lengthy quest for his abducted niece (Natalie Wood) - and racist revenge. Stanley Kramer's The Defiant Ones (1958) brought black and white chain-gang members (Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis) together during their escape and forced them to overcome their prejudices. In Thunder Road (1958), Robert Mitchum starred as a moonshine bootlegger in the Tennessee Appalachians, with Treasury Department agents in hot pursuit. Alfred Hitchcock's suspense-thriller North by Northwest (1959) proceeded from NY in a N-Westerly direction, toward Chicago by train, and then onto Rapid City, South Dakota and an exciting climax atop Mount Rushmore.

In the landmark road epic Easy Rider (1969), Dennis Hopper (as Billy) and Peter Fonda (as Wyatt/Captain America) rode their bikes from Mexico to Los Angeles (for a drug deal) and then onto New Orleans for Mardi Gras. Symbolizing generational unrest along the way in their search for America (moving eastward), they encountered Establishment prejudice and jailed, drunken lawyer George Hanson (Jack Nicholson). Disaffected classical pianist and oil-rigger Bobby Eroica Dupea (Jack Nicholson) made an ill-fated attempt to find himself on a journey to see his ailing father in Puget Sound, where along the way he picked up two unusual female hitchhikers on their way to Alaska (in Five Easy Pieces (1970). The X-rated Best Picture winner Midnight Cowboy (1969) ended essentially as a road trip when male stud Joe Buck (Jon Voight) and sickly companion 'Ratso' Rizzo (Dustin Hoffman) boarded a bus from NYC to their fantasy land of Florida.

Two Lane Blacktop - 1971Steven Spielberg's early student film Duel (1971) took place on California's desert roads where a harried businessman (Dennis Weaver) was relentlessly pursued by an unseen driver of a diesel truck. In Monte Hellman's road classic about drag-racing drifters Two Lane Blacktop (1971), the route for a race to Washington DC between a '55 Chevy and a '70 Pontiac GTO began in Los Angeles and traveled eastward through the Southwest -- through Needles (CA), Flagstaff (AZ), Santa Fe (NM), Little Rock (AK), Memphis (TN), and Marysville (NC). And in another action/chase film, Richard Sarafian's The Vanishing Point (1971), Barry Newman (as a desperate ex-marine, ex-race car driver and cop named Kowalski) was propelled from Denver to San Francisco by drugs and police giving chase to his white Dodge Challenger - ending in a climactic car crash at a road block created from bulldozers. In George Miller's The Road Warrior (1982), Mel Gibson starred as a post-apocalyptic wanderer in Australia who helped to fight off a marauding group of bikers.

Stranger Than Paradise - 1984Wim Wenders' Paris, Texas (1983) featured Harry Dean Stanton as an amnesiac named Travis who slowly pieced together his life after traveling from Texas to California and reconciling with his wife Jane (Nastassja Kinski) in the sex industry. Jim Jarmusch's minimalist independent film Stranger Than Paradise (1984) followed the aimless and boring lifestyle of small-time gambler Willie (John Lurie) and his hustler buddy Eddie (Richard Edson) -- along with Willie's teenaged Hungarian cousin Eva (Eszter Balint), while they found paradise in various settings (Ohio, and Miami, Florida).

Gus Van Sant's My Own Private Idaho (1991) told of the relationship between two other hustlers: River Phoenix's narcoleptic Mike Waters and Keanu Reeves' Scott Favor, as they traveled through Seattle, Portland, Idaho and Rome on a quest for River's missing mother. Auteur writer/director Greg Araki's arthouse film The Living End (1992), known as the "gay Thelma & Louise," told about HIV-positive film critic Jon (Craig Gilmore) and his on-the-lam flight with violent nihilist Luke (Mike Dytri). George Sluizer's The Vanishing (1993), an English-language remake of his own superior 1988 Dutch film, starred Keifer Sutherland on an obsessive search for his missing girlfriend Diane (Sandra Bullock) after a gas station stop, and Jeff Bridges as the creepy psychotic kidnapper.

Kevin Reynolds' coming-of-age road film Fandango (1985) involved five recent University of Texas graduates (including unknown Kevin Costner and Judd Nelson) known as "the Groovers" in 1971 who took one last road odyssey across West Texas while on the verge of uncertain futures (including conscription in the Vietnam War). Walter Hill's Crossroads (1986) was a Faustian-related road movie fantasy-drama (based on the story of real life blues legend Robert Johnson), with an exceptional Ry Cooder blues soundtrack, about a pair of searchers (Ralph Macchio as Julliard School guitarist Eugene Martone - aka Lightning Boy, and Joe Seneca as legendary blues musician and harmonica player Willie Brown - aka Blind Dog) who traveled across the Mississippi Delta, with runaway Frances (Jami Gertz).

Robert Rodriguez' From Dusk Till Dawn (1996) paired Quentin Tarantino and George Clooney as bad-boy brothers Richard and Seth Gecko, who were assailed by vampires at a trucker roadhouse stopoff called The Titty Twister. David Cronenberg's erotic and disturbing Crash (1996) examined the lives of a subculture of individuals who had fetishes about car crashes, including their staged recreations of celebrity automobile accidents. In Terry Gilliam's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), based upon Hunter S. Thompson's 1971 book, stoned, slightly-insane sports-journalist Raoul Duke (Johnny Depp) and his sidekick attorney Dr. Gonzo (Benicio Del Toro) took a drug-crazed ride in a red convertible across the Mohave Desert from LA to Las Vegas, experiencing surreal surroundings and many crazy characters. Chris Eyre's Smoke Signals (1998), the first major release written, directed, co-produced, and acted by Native Americans, included an emotionally-difficult road trip from an Idaho reservation to Phoenix. David Lynch's simple and sentimental The Straight Story (1999) told of aging widower Alvin Straight's (Richard Farnsworth) determined attempt to travel (on a riding lawnmower) to a neighboring state to reconcile with his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton).

Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001)The Coen Brothers' Depression Era crime comedy O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), loosely based on Homer's Odyssey, told of the adventures of escaped chain-gang convict Ulysses Everett McGill (George Clooney) in the Deep South. In John Dahl's teenage horror road film Joy Ride (2001), reminiscent of Spielberg's Duel, a trio's (Paul Walker, Leelee Sobieski, and Steve Zahn) cross-country road trip turned violent after a cruel CB radio prank played on a trucker known by the 'handle' of Rusty Nail. Alfonso Cuaron's critically-acclaimed and explicit film of sexual awakening and discovery, Y Tu Mama Tambien (2001) paired two sexually-active teen boys on a wild cross-country trip to Mexico, to a paradise beach called Boca del Cielo (Heaven's Mouth) with seductive, 28-year-old Luisa Cortes (Maribel Verdu).

Bruno Dumont's unrated Twentynine Palms (2003, Fr.) had only two principal cast members -- cross-cultural lovers including American photographer David (David Wissak) and French-speaking Russian girlfriend Katia (Katia Golubeva), who scouted locations in the barren desert of Joshua Tree National Park in a Hummer and repeatedly made love. The rites of passage road movie The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), an adaptation of Che Guevara's journals written while traveling in South America in 1952, told of a bike trip by asthma-stricken 23-year-old medical student Ernesto Guevara De La Serna (Gael García Bernal) and 29-year-old Argentinian biochemist Alberto Granado (Rodrigo De La Serna). And Alexander Payne's lauded Sideways (2004) told of the week-long exploits of failed, wannabe writer and wine expert Miles (Paul Giamatti) and his best friend - middle-aged, engaged-to-be-married acting-buddy Jack (Thomas Haden Church), during a trip in California's wine country.

Comedy Road Films:

The early 40s "Road To" movies pairing Bob Hope and Bing Crosby with Dorothy Lamour found the comedy team in far-away places, illustrated in the titles:

  • Road to Singapore (1940)
  • Road to Zanzibar (1941)
  • Road to Morocco (1942)
  • Road to Utopia (1946)
  • Road to Rio (1947)

The other films in the series in later years were:

  • Road to Bali (1952)
  • Road to Hong Kong (1962)

The Long, Long Trailer - 1954The last segment of W.C. Fields' It's a Gift (1934) featured a hilarious family car trip to California. In Vincente Minnelli's romantic comedy The Long, Long Trailer (1954), Lucille Ball's and Desi Arnaz' marriage as the Collinis slowly disintegrated while 'on the road' with a bulky car trailer. Tony Curtis, Jack Lemmon, and Natalie Wood were part of an all-star cast in Blake Edwards' The Great Race (1965). Similar films included Stanley Kramer's wacky Cineramic It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and Those Daring Young Men in Their Jaunty Jalopies (1969).

Although the road trip in George Lucas' American Graffiti (1973) wasn't very extensive, the entire film was about hot-rod drag-stripping down the main street of a small California town during one summer's night. Young Tatum O'Neal won a Best Supporting Actress for her performance as 9 year-old orphaned Addie Loggins, who with Bible-selling con man Moses Pray (Ryan O'Neal) swindled Depression-Era customers in the Midwest in Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon (1973) as they toured the dusty rural roads of Middle America.

The Sure Thing - 1985In Paul Mazursky's Harry & Tonto (1974), Oscar-winning Art Carney (as the septuagenarian widower title character) took his beloved aging cat Tonto on a cross-country trip to Los Angeles. In Harold Ramis' National Lampoon's Vacation (1983), Chevy Chase (as patriarch Clark Griswold) and family hit the cross-country highways ultimately bound for closed-for-renovations amusement park Wally World. Rob Reiner's coming-of-age romantic comedy The Sure Thing (1985) followed college freshman John Cusack (as Walter "Gib" Gibson) on a cross-country trip westward with mismatched coed Daphne Zuniga (as Alison Bradbury), to meet a bikinied 'sure thing' -- Nicolette Sheridan. Barry Levinson's Best Picture winning Rain Man (1988) told of self-discovery and reconciliation during a car trip between Cincinnati and California (by way of Las Vegas), between a self-centered, materialistic Californian Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) and his autistic-savant older brother Raymond Babbitt (Dustin Hoffman).

Lost in America - 1985John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd found themselves chased on the road (mostly in Chicago) and "on a mission" to go on tour to raise $5,000 to keep an orphanage open in John Landis' The Blues Brothers (1980). In Tim Burton's first feature film Pee-Wee's Big Adventure (1985), Pee Wee (Paul Reubens) took a cross-country trip to recover his stolen, fire engine-red customized bicycle, including a memorable visit to San Antonio's Alamo. Star/director/writer Albert Brooks' Lost in America (1985) demonstrated what could happen if a suburban yuppie couple (Brooks and Julie Hagerty as David and Linda Howard) left the rat race, sold all of their materialistic possessions and searched for the 'real' America in a Winnebago, with life-changing visits to Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam. Melanie Griffith as unconventional Lulu/Audrey took Jeff Daniels (as strait-laced NY bond trader Charlie Driggs) on an unforgettable road-trip to their HS reunion in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1984).

The ultimate 'travelers' nightmare' road-trip during the holidays was portrayed in John Hughes' hilarious Planes, Trains, and Automobiles (1987), with mismatched companions Steve Martin as aggravated businessman Neal Page, and John Candy as obnoxious shower-ring salesman Del Griffith. Martin Brest's Midnight Run (1988) also featured two bickering leads: Robert De Niro as bounty-hunter Jack Walsh escorting (by handcuffs) whiny accountant-embezzler Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) for extradition from New York to Los Angeles, during which Mardukas comments: "Under other circumstances, you and I...probably would still have hated each other". Peter Farrelly's Dumb and Dumber (1994) coupled imbecilic Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) and Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels) together during their idiotic escapades from the East Coast to Aspen, Colorado. In a shorter 'road' trip, of sorts, Walter Hill's 48 Hours (1982) (aka 48 Hrs.) paired Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy as bickering, 'odd-couple' buddy-cops: temperamental detective Jack Cates and smooth-talking Reggie Hammond - two who disliked each other immensely ("We ain't partners, we ain't brothers, and we ain't friends").

The ribald Australian comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994) included an unlikely trio of characters (two drag queens and a transsexual, portrayed by cinematic heavies Guy Pearce, Hugo Weaving, and Terence Stamp) as they traveled in a lavender-colored bus named Priscilla to Alice Springs - a remote outback location - to play a lip-synching drag stage show. In To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar (1995), Patrick Swayze, Wesley Snipes, and John Leguizamo traveled across the country disguised in drag. The full-length animated feature Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996), starring the dim-witted MTV teens, found them traveling cross-country to recover a stolen TV and find sex, while being chased by both sides of the law. Todd Phillips' teen sex-comedy Road Trip (2000) with gratuitous nudity told of a frenzied 1,800 mile journey set in motion by a videotaped illicit sexual encounter (between Amy Smart and Breckin Meyer) in upstate NY that was accidentally mailed to the guy's girlfriend in Austin, TX.




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